- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2006

“The Faculty Room” is at war with itself. Bridget Carpenter’s play disparages educators, students and religious fervor and can’t make up its mind whether it’s a comedy or a scary depiction of the apocalypse.

Whatever the playwright’s intent — and the work has been tinkered with since 2003 — its purpose does not come through in Woolly Mammoth’s production, which has been mounted with fine production values and finesse by Howard Shalwitz. Is it a satiric sendup of the inappropriate relationships between teachers and students? Is it a disturbing look at the Rapture, the biblical event in which people in their corporeal bodies are called to heaven? The play jerks the audience around so much that after a while, you simply don’t care either way.

Miss Carpenter became fascinated by the phenomenon of the “Left Behind” books and graphic novels (and an upcoming video game), which depict the “end time” of Earth, when the saved have vanished seemingly into thin air and the rest are left to grapple with their faith and join the fight against the Antichrist. The 15 novels (which have prompted spinoff series that have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide) are consistently on the New York Times best-seller list with sales of more than $65 million.

Set in an isolated Midwestern town, “The Faculty Room” shows a student body largely seized with religious ecstasy, spurred by a series of books titled “Sudden Awakening.” With typical adolescent obsessiveness, the children write essays and plays based on the books — with a little “Dawson’s Creek” or “Gilmore Girls” thrown in for verisimilitude — and start a hugely popular “Sudden Awakening” book club. For the school’s annual Spirit Week, they want to put on a religious ritual.

The frustrating thing about “Faculty Room” is that most of the interesting stuff happens offstage. You never see the students actively engaged in the Rapture movement or receive their insights as to why it has gripped their consciousness.

All you get are cynical and snickering comments from the teachers seeking refuge in the faculty lounge.

Burned out educators Adam Younger (Ethan T. Bowen) and Zoe Bartholemew (Megan Anderson) have themselves quite a time chain-smoking and dishing up sarcasm about how dumb and sheeplike their students are. They have nothing but disdain for the high schoolers — unless they are picking which ones to sleep with.

Maybe it’s the writing, maybe it’s the cutthroat portrayals by Mr. Bowen and Miss Anderson, but the plot line concerning the cavalier seduction of students by teachers is not funny or strangely disquieting but raises the “yuck” factor to a nearly intolerable degree.

New teacher Carver Durand (Michael Russotto) does not find the “Sudden Awakening” craze amusing, but disturbing. He’s not too keen on the diddling with students, either. The character of Carver provides the uneasy conscience of the play. Although deeply flawed, he tries to uplift his students. A fourth teacher, Bill Dunn (Michael Willis), is a mystery, a mute figure who shambles into the faculty room for coffee and nothing more.

The teachers are such unseemly, overgrown adolescents, and their conversation is so caustic and vapid, you find yourself drawn to the unseen students. In contrast to their whiny instructors, the students seem passionate, quirky and involved in life. But even projecting personalities onto the teenagers does not prepare you for the finale, an apocalyptic event that, in keeping with the infuriating structure of the play, occurs behind the scenes.

For two hours, the audience has witnessed little more than a bunch of educators mocking their students and sniping at each other. All of a sudden, religious rapture occurs, and we’re supposed to believe the most amoral of them all, Adam, is among the ascendants? There has been no indication that he was a believer, and any epiphanies he had were under the influence of pot and Ecstasy.

At this point, you don’t know whether “The Faculty Room” is supposed to expose the hypocrisy of the Rapture movement, or what. Your incredulity is stretched when Bill suddenly speaks, delivering a maudlin speech about a miracle he just witnessed.

The confusion deepens with the play’s vague ending, which has Carver sitting in the ruined teacher’s lounge, sobbing and clutching a baseball cap. A student (Miles Butler) wanders in, wide-eyed and dazed, and what do he and Carver talk about? Room decor.

It’s the Second Coming, and this kid is concerned about clutter? Yet for all its glaring flaws, you still would rather see a fresh, half-baked play such as “The Faculty Room” than a perfectly respectable but unchallenging production of some old chestnut any day. Mr. Shalwitz and Woolly Mammoth should be commended for their unwavering commitment to new and raw work, but “The Faculty Room” could have used a schoolmarm of a dramaturg to deal with the play’s numerous lapses in logic and inconsistency of tone.

**

WHAT: “The Faculty Room,” by Bridget Carpenter

WHERE: Woolly Mammoth, 641 D St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through July 9.

TICKETS: $30 to $48

PHONE: 202/393-3939 MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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